Editorial: Heavyweight action in the children's corner

Stephen Cook, editor

Anything that improves the often scandalous plight of children in custody should be welcomed, so it's good news that Martin Narey, the relatively new chief executive of Barnardo's, has declared this to be a campaigning priority.

He's particularly well placed to lead on this issue because he was, in one incarnation or another, in charge of the prisons in England and Wales from 1998 until July last year. He knows the system from the inside.

In his new job, Narey hit the ground running by declaring in interviews in Third Sector and elsewhere that antisocial behaviour orders for young people were being over-used and far too many children were being imprisoned for breaches of such orders.

He followed this up by telling The Guardian last month that, when he was locking up 3,000 children at any one time, "the absence of any sort of criticism or pressure from children's organisations was pretty shameful". Barnardo's, NCH and the NSPCC never came across his radar, he said.

The latter two charities and the Children's Society chose not to respond to these remarks when offered the opportunity to do so by Third Sector. One possible, but unlikely, interpretation of this is that they felt the criticism was warranted and therefore had nothing to add. Another more likely interpretation is that they judged it best to keep their own counsel and preserve a united public front for the sake of achieving their joint objectives. There is a lot to be said for the latter approach, and no one is obliged to respond to questions from the press.

It's notable that Narey did not mention the Children's Society by name, because it has always been a strong critic of the incarceration of under-18s. The record also shows that Barnardo's itself has been fairly active as well. For example, it was one of the signatories, with the Children's Society, of a petition calling for a public inquiry into the death of Joseph Scholes, a 16-year-old who hanged himself in Stoke Heath Young Offenders Institution in 2002. The same two charities joined a campaign calling on all candidates at the last General Election to commit themselves to ending the use of penal custody for children.

As well as being outspoken, Narey is a hugely experienced heavyweight and knows where the bodies are buried. The big campaigning children's charities should achieve great things with him on their united team.

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